Saludos de Medellin, la ciudad de la eterna primavera! (Greetings from Medellin, the city of eternal spring.) After much urging from many of you, I decided to share my experience in a blog format. I am slowly immersing into the Colombian culture, seeking to perceive the face of God here. The title of this blog is inspired by a conversation I had with a woman, a disciple (committed member) of the Verbum Dei community in Medellin, the first day I was here. In the course of our conversation (I was trying to understand her Colombian accent;-), it seemed to me she kept calling God “mi Moreno” (my brown one), but I was not sure if she was referring to her husband. So I asked her if she was speaking about God, and she said, “Claro… Dios tiene piel como la mia,” (“Of course… God has skin like mine”). Yes! I decided to title this blog of my experience in Colombia Mi Dios Moreno (My brown God) because it captures the missionary approach I hope to embody (for my fellow theology nerds out there, an integration of contextual theology and missiology): to let the people teach me how they perceive and experience God, and not to impose an image of God, ESPECIALLY as I am a North American of European descent.
These first 6 weeks in Colombia were very full. I arrived in time for the Verbum Dei National Encounter where all the communities in Colombia gather for three days. It was a great way to begin getting to know the community here, since most of the time I will be in Medellin, and I will not see the missionaries and disciples from Pereira, Bucaramunga, and Bogota.
After the encounter, we had a few days of formation and community sharing, and then dove into the silence of our month of spiritual exercises. I was looking forward to deepening in the experience of my final vows, since I have not had much time to do that with all the changes and transitions of life since then, getting ready to move to Colombia and all.
The month retreat is always challenging, but this one was even more so trying to understand Spanish. (Our month retreats are silent, but directed, so we receive inputs throughout the day.) But I had a beautiful experience of God’s unshakeable love (Isaiah 54:10) in the midst of the change and transition, and God´s eternal covenant (Jeremiah 31:3): “Tu me amarás, y yo te amaré… hasta la muerte nos une mas.” (You will love me, and I will love you… until death unites us even more), a song by Hermana Glenda which we sang in the retreat.
Medellin is a large city (approx. 2.5 million) nestled in a valley that lies at about 5,000 feet elevation, in the midst of the Andes. While the city is renowned for being one long springtime, there are kind of two seasons. It either rains, or it doesn’t rain. And I can tell you that when it rains, it POURS- thunderstorms that shake the earth. I´ve never heard thunder so loud! It sounds like the heavens are starving, and its bowels are churning with hunger. One night during the month retreat, I couldn’t sleep because the storm was so loud, and I wondered if I should wake up to pray, but I felt quite at peace lying in bed and listening to the storm. I eventually fell back asleep. In the morning, when I was talking to Jesus about it, asking if I should have gotten up to pray early, I understood him ask me, “What did I do in the storm?” You slept (Luke 8:22-25). “And how did you feel in the storm last night?” Quite good! Calm, peaceful, safe… “Exactly.” It became a beautiful experience of prayer for life, learning how to sleep with Jesus through the storms of life, finding that deeper faith, security, and trust in God. This is actually quite a fruit and evolution of prayer because I always identify with the disciples’ fear and anger at Jesus whenever I pray with this passage because he is sleeping, and leaving me/us to flounder in a sinking boat in the midst of the storm. This was the first time I actually understood (existentially- not just with my mind) how Jesus could sleep in the storm.
Our month retreat was at a retreat center several thousand feet above the city, with a beautiful view of the city below. The clouds that cover the valley were at eye-level with us. Each morning I would go out with my coffee and watch the first rays of the sun peaking over the crest of the mountains, spilling into the sleepy valley below. The view of the lights at night was like a sea of jewels glittering in the darkness. I understood from God that every single one of the people in this city are like a precious jewel in God’s hand, like a light shining in the darkness. They just need to discover it.
As you may know, this country, and Medellin in particular, have experienced some very dark times, 50+ years of essentially civil war. Things have vastly improved in the last decade or two. I happened to arrive in Colombia in a very historic moment. The government has been in the process of peace negotiations over the last few years with several of the guerrillas. The reached another accord with one of the guerrillas this September.
Pope Francis’ visit fell right in the middle of our month retreat. We allowed the Pope to preach our retreat during those days; instead of the regular guidelines, we prayed with his homilies and messages. On September 9, we attended the Pope’s address to religious women and men and their families in Medellin. It was a message full of hope, critical reflection, challenge, and humor. I highly encourage everyone to read it! It’s not just for religious, but for everyone. In fact, I have included links to all his messages from his visit to Colombia below. There is a lot of content, but well worth the time to read and pray with them.
I must say, it is a powerful moment to begin my experience in Colombia. I have always heard about the violence and unrest here throughout my life, and to see the process of reconciliation negotiation is very powerful. To love a people, you need to enter through their history and their wounds… listening to their stories, often stories of unimaginable sorrow and pain.
In the Verbum Dei encounter, many disciples shared their stories with me. One mother told me how she sent her three daughters to the US when they were young to be safe. This is the story of many families. Years ago, several of the missionaries in our community have had family members murdered by the guerrillas, or involved in drugs, their families destroyed by Pablo Escobar. Medellin has been transformed since the height of the violence in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. But still carries the scars.
It was beautiful to begin my time here in silence, and to allow God to prepare my heart for ministry here. We also held in prayer the hurricane in the US and the Caribbean, the earthquakes in Mexico, and many other places of suffering in the world during our retreat, believing that prayer transcend space and time in the Mystical Body of Christ which unites us all.
I conclude with the prayer that Pope Francis offered to the black Christ of Bojayá at the end of his message at the reconciliation liturgy in Villavicencio. The black Christ of Bojayá is a crucifix whose arms and legs were destroyed in a church bombing by FARC in 2002, which Pope Francis describes in his message below
O black Christ of Bojayá,
who remind us of your passion and death; together with your arms and feet they have torn away your children who sought refuge in you.
O black Christ of Bojayá,
who look tenderly upon us
and in whose face is serenity;
your heart beats so that we may be received in your love.
O black Christ of Bojayá,
Grant us to commit ourselves to restoring your body.
May we be your feet that go forth to encounter our brothers and sisters in need;
your arms to embrace those who have lost their dignity;
your hands to bless and console those who weep alone.
Make us witnesses
to your love and infinite mercy.